Sunday, October 19, 2014

Shouldn’t the city be fixing deteriorating sidewalks?

From page HSR2 | May 24, 2014 |

Q:  We own, and live in, a house near downtown Fairfield. The sidewalk right in front of the house is in really bad shape and getting worse. It’s been deteriorating for several years now. The problem started with a series of cracks that we didn’t worry about. But over the past year or so, these cracks have gotten bigger and bigger as some tree roots have kept putting pressure underneath. This morning one of the neighbors tripped on the crack and chipped his tooth.  There are actually chunks of concrete that you can lift right out. Not only is this bad for the appearance of our house but I can only imagine the liability issues. Isn’t the city supposed to maintain the sidewalks? What should we do?

A:  Yes, you are correct that the city is responsible for the sidewalk. You may remember a number of years ago the city manager recommended to the city council that they pass an ordinance making Fairfield homeowners responsible for the sidewalks that border their property.

The outcry from the public was deafening. The council quickly pulled back from the idea and the sidewalks have been firmly in the city’s sphere of responsibility ever since.

Municipalities are very concerned about problems like these because they expose the city to liability for injuries, such as those to your neighbor.

As you can imagine, the city needs to hear from people about problems with sidewalks since there’s no way a relatively small number of people at public works can possibly patrol all of the sidewalks in town. So you need to start by notifying the city’s Public Works Department of the problem.

Make sure to document when you notified the city and who you spoke to. You may want to follow up your conversation with a letter.

Under California law, once the city has received notification of the problem they must act within a reasonable time in order to minimize their liability should someone else get hurt.

Generally, the city’s liability to injured pedestrians only begins once the city knows, or should reasonably have known, of the problem. Consequently, I can almost guarantee that the city will repair the problem within the next several months.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that as long as they make the sidewalk safe there is no legal requirement that it looks good. One of the first, and cheapest, actions the city can take is to send a workman out with a grinder and simply grind down the part of the crack that is a tripping hazard.  You’ve probably seen the results of this type of repair around town.

If the crack is big enough and the city is in a hurry to fill it in they will sometimes dump a black asphalt material into the crack.

In other words, just because the city will take care of the problem doesn’t mean they will replace the sidewalk.

Like I said, you need to start by notifying the city of the problem. If the city doesn’t repair the problem with due consideration to the appearance it may take the efforts of you and your neighbors to petition the city to replace the concrete.

But given current budget constraints, it could take a while.

In this type of situation the squeaky wheel really does get the grease.

Tim Jones is a real estate attorney in Fairfield. If you have any real estate questions you would like to have answered in this column you can contact him at


Discussion | 7 comments

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  • HuckleberryMay 24, 2014 - 3:39 am

    Interesting. The City of Fairfield decided that they would not replace fencing that use to be their domain for streets backing up to houses. What has happened due to many houses being rental is that dogs have started excaping. A catch 22 since renters are not going to replace fencing. The result is dogs being picked up by animal control and being charged $50 per day to house them not to mention not notifying dogs that are chipped. My friend paid a $600 for a man who had 2 chi in the dog shelter who would probably be euthaized. Was she ever paid back due to the irresponsible owner. Not on your life. So when everyone talks about how great Fairfield is doing, really not so. Many of these dogs are killed due to lousy owners and Fairfield not doing as well as they would like you to believe.

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  • sidewalks vs fencesMay 24, 2014 - 5:01 pm

    Huckleberry- this story is about sidewalks, every time you comment on an article you comment on a completely different topic. The way this works is we read the story and make comments related to said story. Maybe take some time to review some other comments and see if you can catch the way the process works.

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  • Rick WoodMay 24, 2014 - 1:51 pm

    I beg to differ with you, Tim. It's my recollection that the City has never owned or been responsible for sidewalks. They have maintained them when a City street tree causes damage or as part of a public works street or utility project that necessitates the sidewalk be replaced. Other than that, they have done work they are not REQUIRED to do, but do because property owners won't do it, there is a safety hazard, and the City didn't want to deal with the outrage you mentioned. If a property owner wants to replace HIS sidewalk, he does need to pull a City permit just like with a house remodel or other major work. The City will make sure the work is up to City standards. But that doesn't make the sidewalk the City's. Nor does it make the liability the City's for a trip and fall.

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  • Mayor SanchezMay 24, 2014 - 3:06 pm

    Tim is right. I recall a former city manager of Suisun City suggesting that the city make the sidewalks in front of homes be the responsibility of homeowners. Then-mayor Spering and I, vice-mayor at that time disagreed and did not even agendize if for council discussion. Recently I brought up the matter of bulging sidewalks at Lawler Ranch to city staff who told me we are liable for tripping injuries only if residents can prove the city knew of the hazard. So, what I did is e-mail the bad sidewalk condition to city manager telling her"now you are aware. Fix the sidewalks now". Sure enough the sidewalks are now fixed. : )

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  • RobMay 24, 2014 - 10:06 pm

    Below is the language from the California Streets and Highways code. The fronting property owner is responsible for the sidewalk unless the City Council passes an ordinance or resolution to accept the responsibility. Please correct me if I am wrong. 5610. The owners of lots or portions of lots fronting on any portion of a public street or place when that street or place is improved or if and when the area between the property line of the adjacent property and the street line is maintained as a park or parking strip, shall maintain any sidewalk in such condition that the sidewalk will not endanger persons or property and maintain it in a condition which will not interfere with the public convenience in the use of those works or areas save and except as to those conditions created or maintained in, upon, along, or in connection with such sidewalk by any person other than the owner, under and by virtue of any permit or right granted to him by law or by the city authorities in charge thereof, and such persons shall be under a like duty in relation thereto.

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  • Rick WoodMay 24, 2014 - 10:14 pm

    Rob: Thanks. So the question is whether the City has passed such a resolution or ordinance. That I don't know, but I would surprise if the City would do such a thing in difficult financial times, like we've seemed to have forever.

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  • JagMay 24, 2014 - 10:13 pm

    First find out who is responsible if it is the city go out at night with a crowbar and flip it over and half on its edge so bad that they will come sooner, but first find out, I called for repair at our business in San Francisco and found out that the business owner has to fix it and now I opened the case we had 30 days to do it also once they were on site they notice three trees were broke or missing so we had to replace those too (backfired)

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